By Yogi Baba Prem Yogcharya, Veda Visharada
My fascination with words has evolved over many decades, with my deepening study of Yoga/Hinduism/Spirituality bringing a deeper appreciation for words, and more importantly what they attempt to communicate to each of us. This intensified with the study of Sanskrit, where I not only learned the meanings of words but also that the relationship between the letters of the words bore a complex relationship. While there are numerous additional forms of communication that each of us use such as various non-verbal cues, body language, and even body chemistry being a powerful communication tool, it is verbal and written communication that is without doubt one of the crowning achievements of the human animal.
The average college student has a working vocabulary of 12,000-17,000 words.[i] Allowing for comprehensive and in-depth communication, especially when one considers that a working knowledge of slang, humor or sarcastic application is required as well. So not only must we have a literal understanding between parties of a words meaning, there is an understanding and application of words in a variety of different situations, requiring complex reasoning skills and as well as reading of verbal and non-verbal cues. It is this depth of communication that has allowed humanity to grow and communicate with clarity, as well as reduce confusion and interpersonal conflict through clear and concise communication. For example relative to chemistry, imagine if everyone had a different term for a ‘beaker’ or ‘test-tube’; or if during surgery there was a different understanding between the surgeon and surgical nurse as to what a scalpel was. In essence the application of these tools and productivity with them would slow immensely if there was not a clear definition and understanding of each term. Therefore, verbal communication is truly a wonderful gift allowing each of us to experience and express ideas, concepts and needs verbally or through the written word.
Likewise, improper application of meaning has revealed an incredibly destructive side to communication, especially in the realm of spirituality and religion. An excellent example of this would be the Sanskrit term Aryan.[ii] The term Aryan appears in texts as old as the Rg Veda. But western science incorrectly interpreted the meaning of this term and assigned it to a people, this improper translation led scholars to believe that aryan literally referred to a foreign people. While the term does apply to a people, it was the local people of the Vedic tradition, as Aryan comes from the term Arya meaning noble. The local Vedic tradition considered itself ‘noble people.’ Even in later times Buddhism and Jainism embraced arya as references to their respective dharma. Yet, science, due to improper translation falsely created a different meaning, and constructed theories to substantiate the word and its improper translation,[iii] expanding even to unsubstantiated language groups to support the theory. But distortion of a spiritual word would eventually reveal an even more destructive and insidious side; with the term and pseudo theory of arya(n) eventually being embraced by a socio/political/religious movement called Nazism, which resulted in a great deal of suffering inflicted upon humanity-partially based upon a misunderstanding of a word and its resulting pseudo theory; not to imply that this pseudo-translation was responsible for World Wars but it did prove to be a unifying force, therefore strengthening the belief and unity of this depraved group. The result of this bad science and religious acquisition became so powerful in the human collective psyche that it continues to manifest amongst a variety of ‘hate groups’ globally. Yet, it was originally only a term used to refer to a group of people in India that followed the teachings of dharma. While this might be viewed as an extreme example, it is rather clear in defining the destructive process that can manifest from misinterpretation of a spiritual/religious term.
The Modern Conundrum
Within the past 50+ years in the west there has been a growing rejection of various religious dogmas, resulting in a reduction in church attendance and loss of membership amongst established western religious groups as many have rejected western religious dogma. It would be true to say that some in search of a deeper spiritual connection have embraced eastern religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism, but in reality this migration has birthed a variety of new approaches and generalized groups collectively known as the ‘new-age movement’. Generally, it would be correct to say the new-age movement has become a spiritual melting pot. Many of these new-age approaches are comprised of a mixture of and snippets of various philosophical systems combined in a chaotic fashion manifesting as new philosophical systems; but in reality these have been built upon a mixture of various sects of Hinduism, Buddhism to some extent, and various native traditions from around the globe. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this combination of various traditions, it has resulted in a continuing process of ‘reinventing the wheel’ repeatedly relative to a spiritual nomenclature, which is essential to convey the philosophies of these newer systems. As many of these systems are at a relatively young stage of development they are often a conglomerate of various terms from numerous other religions. While understandable, an unintended consequence has manifested resulting in a lack of clear and consistent communication between all parties involved in spiritual study. This is further magnified by the highly migratory nature of the average student of spirituality, who often switches philosophical systems numerous times over a lifetime, with extreme examples of this rapid philosophical migratory pattern occurring within a small segment of the population as frequently as weekly or monthly.
As a ‘spiritual melting pot’, philosophies have emerged, often these groups have ‘borrowed’ terms from other traditions with little to no understanding of the depth of teachings that accompany the words that have been annexed into these new systems. An excellent example would be the Hindu term dhyana—meditation. While the lay person associates meditation with relaxation or concentration, it is most commonly expressed as visualization amongst these new hybrid philosophical systems. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with relaxation, visualization or concentration, in reality from the perspective of the traditions within India and the east it is not really meditation. What we commonly refer to as meditation in the west is more akin to bhavana or contemplative thinking. Within the Hindu traditions, while there is some variance in application or direct experience of dhyana, they generally require two components: 1) Ekagrata and 2) Niruddha and share a common goal-samadhi or super consciousness.
Ekagrata is one-pointedness, rooted in concentration (dharana), and is the perfect flow of thought. Nirudha is arrested thought. Some like to view this as thoughtlessness, but in reality arrested thought is stoppage of various forms of new thought, especially linked with the senses and lower states of mind, yet latent thoughts remain within in the mind. These latent thoughts increase in strength and eventually subside overtime, leaving only the object of perception and knowledge. Achieving nirudha takes considerable skill and is quite rare within humanity. Needless to say, it is quite different from relaxation exercises or various other exercises in visualization, though they have their place. Herein lies the conundrum, verbally adopting a term combined with a lack of understanding of root or core principles of said term has resulted in numerous false meditations, hallucinations, and even delusion in extreme cases; which is quite different from the actual goal of achieving ekagrata, nirudha, or the experience of meditation. This facade has even penetrated the modern scientific model, in which numerous studies have been performed on the benefits of meditation, without proper criteria as to what meditation actually is. Resulting in some studies being spurious as they have identified benefit yet this benefit may be more correctly associated with dharana (concentration) and bhavana (contemplative thinking) as both are somewhat different from meditation.
One may ask, ‘What is the problem with achieving relaxation and calling it meditation?’ In reality, there is nothing improper with referring to relaxation as relaxation only, but referring to relaxation as meditation is akin to calling a sparrow an eagle. Strangely, referring to the act of relaxation within spiritual circles is commonly viewed as something less, insignificant or amounting to poor effort. Yet, there is a more insidious side to a lack of understanding of the nomenclature of any religion/spirituality. The deficiency in a clear understanding of spiritual terms risks taking humanity backwards spiritually. This is a serious area of concern for all of humanity. And it is currently one of the greatest challenges to spiritual growth the world has seen in modern history. Egocentric interpretations and applications of spiritual teachings and concepts can and have easily manifested in depraved minds that pervert spiritual teachings for a personal agenda. An example of this can clearly be observed in the massive proliferation of teachers having sexual encounters with students. More concerning is that teachers with nefarious agendas can and often manipulate the masses due to the masses lack of knowledge about the very terms the pseudo teacher reputedly uses. Regrettably, all too often the primary criteria used for examining the legitimacy of a term are simply asking oneself ‘if it feels good.’ Regrettably, this is a poor yard stick in which one measures truth, as therapists offices are often filled with individuals that followed the ‘feel good’ measure for their life. This is further compounded as a spiritually hungry public is commonly misled to believe that any definition/application of a concept can lead one to realization. This manic process of defining spiritual terms is often resulting in a further degradation of spiritual concepts, as a growing movement has emerged in which individuals merely make up meanings for spiritual concepts, principle’s and terms. Some have coined the term projecting for the process of projecting one’s own definition upon a word, but all too often this projection is rooted in delusion within the mind as opposed to what the term actually expressed in its traditional usage. Such as the improper translation of the Sanskrit term moksha leading many to believe that moksha means salvation, when in reality it means liberation. Salvation/liberation has two entirely different philosophical views regarding their meaning, application and practice. The traditional systems were rooted in dharma, and are considered to be rooted in rtam or cosmic truth. While not popular, there is a significant difference between making up a meaning of a term and terms based on dharma.
A common argument amongst those that wish to project different meanings upon words is ‘the terms cannot convey the true meaning’. From the Hindu perspective according to the Samkhya philosophical model, a word that is conveying a concept that is beyond understanding, measurement or qualification is called vikalpa. In other words, if one were to use the term infinity, it is understood by all participants to mean something that cannot be measured. In this context the term infinity is vikalpa in nature, and is true relative to the fact that it cannot be measured but expresses a concept or idea within the minds of those that hear the term. If we attempt to apply measurement to a word or concept that is beyond measurement it becomes viparyaya or false knowledge. For example, one can say ‘the universe is infinite’ and this would be vikalpa or true. In contrast, if one says, ‘the infinite universe is only the solar system’, it would become viparyaya or false, as one would be applying a limitation and measurement to something that cannot be defined, in this case the term infinite compared with the solar system which is a known measurement. Yet, in Kashmir Shaivite teachings, Vikalpa is a thought construct or imagination, so one cannot simply take a meaning and apply it to all philosophical systems even those in India.
Another common argument is ‘I see this as meaning…’. Too frequently, this is used to justify passages in spiritual texts that evoke a moral conundrum for the individual embracing the system. The work around in this situation is to simply negate the actual meaning and superimpose ones desired meaning upon the passage, a sort of pseudo-theology is created in this process. While there is nothing wrong with insight into spiritual concepts, it should be based upon actual study of the terms and language rather than a need to resolve conflict in philosophy. The words that comprise any spiritual system have a rich history from which their meaning and application arose. For example, Sanskrit, the language of Yoga, has roots that form each noun. The root provides deeper insight into the actual meaning of the term itself. Within the Yoga tradition, one can know the deeper energetics of a word through deep powerful meditations upon a word and its syllables. This is commonly viewed as a siddhi and is not a common skill or occurrence amongst the masses. Therefore, the meaning of a word should be rooted in the etymology of the term first, then common application of the term relative to the age or time period it is being referenced from. Then if one possesses sufficient skill and has achieved the necessary siddhi, one can access the deeper meaning of the term through its sound energetics via the application of samyama[iv], but as noted previously, it is relatively rare for someone to have this ability.
It is common and convenient for individuals in spirituality to embrace this pseudo-theology of applying one’s own definition to a word. The contributing factors for this are numerous, but certainly it would begin with samskaras, or mental impressions that already exist within the mind, coupled with desire, influenced by the egocentric desire to ‘be one’s own Guru’, this becomes a powerful force within one’s mind. Likewise, the fact that one has migrated away from an established religion or tradition in and of itself indicates a predisposition toward rejection of religious theory or rejection of dogma; while understandable, this can be potentially problematic as one that rejects spiritual teachings obviously is less inclined to embrace formal spiritual teachings. While initially a ‘western world’ issue, this desire to create a pseudo-theology is becoming prolific as Hinduism and Buddhism based cultures migrate toward the western world in general. Affecting not only the cultures from which this rejection originally emerged (Western Culture), but affecting and afflicting the cultures from which the terms originally arose. Commonly this has been referred to through the slang term ‘dumbing-down’ spirituality.
The need for a personal ‘proto-image’ or personal archetype is another powerful motivation. As many left established religion, they were drawn to the appealing concept of creating their own personal archetype or proto-image. This image/archetype is built upon ones personal desires and samskaras, which, regrettably, is often flawed or limited due to a lack of knowledge and results in a poor foundation upon which the ‘spiritual house’ is built. Some might argue ‘but I feel happy following this system!’ No doubt this would be true, as it is rather common for one to find joy within their ‘own sandbox’. But spirituality was specifically designed to take one out of their own ‘sandbox’ and into a greater expansion and understanding of the cosmos and one’s place within the cosmos. The question that arises is simply, ‘Do you wish to just feel good, or are you seeking the greater truth?’
It is rather important that every serious student of spirituality invest the time to really understand the words that are commonly used in the spiritual tradition they choose to follow as well as the overall nomenclature of the system. This not only allows clarity in communication, but allows the spiritual seeker to more clearly understand what they are attempting to achieve, as terms such as enlightenment are vague and have few clear definitions within most students’ minds. An understanding of spiritual terms and their deeper meaning also allows students to vet teachers, as one should carefully consider the wisdom of studying with a teacher that does not understand the terms themselves. This is an especially difficult issue as the current social structure is oriented more towards a ‘cult of personality’ as opposed to valuing true knowledge. Standards for teaching spirituality are amongst the lowest of any career path, with just about any vocation receiving more actual training then some spiritual teaching systems currently in the world.
Regrettably a considerable commitment is required on the part of the student just to evaluate teachers in our current age. Likewise, each teacher has a moral and professional duty to understand the nomenclature of their tradition, with more advanced teachers understanding the nomenclature of additional traditions as well. If we as humanity fail to address this growing issue globally, there is little doubt that spirituality will spiral deeper into a powerful illusion that generates an artificial sense of well-being, while failing to address or offer transformation from the ills facing humanity. It is the responsibility of each student to take up the banner of knowledge and expect teachers to be a living example of the teachings; and if properly applied, a powerful transformation can take place within human consciousness.
[ii] Sanskrit is one of the important languages of Hinduism/Yoga.
[iii] The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) was a theory that improper believed that a fair skinned warrior people invaded northwestern India. This theory is no longer generally accepted, but has been replaced by the Aryan Migration Theory which is built upon equally bad science as the AIT was.
[iv] Samyama is the simultaneous application of concentration, meditation and super-consciousness.